Theatrical Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Flat out, right from the start, I think Marvel hit one out of the park with this one…

While comic book super-hero movies are all the rage now (and I certainly remember a time when they weren’t) to the point where there seems to be a certain amount of fatigue setting in from some viewers, Marvel is doing something distinctly different in trying to create fully satisfying standalone movies that also all tie together. In my estimation, they’ve really succeeded.  They’ve given their hardcore fans something that they know, but they’ve also given a fresh viewer something that they can really get into.  With Captain America: The First Avenger we’ve gotten one of the most pure conversions yet and my hat is off to director Joe Johnston, producer Kevin Feige and the entire production team of Marvel Entertainment.

We start off in the present day, as a a mysterious aircraft has been located buried under an arctic mass by an as yet unidentified team (though those in the know already have an idea who this team is).  As the team makes their way into the aircraft, they discover a familiar red, white and blue object and from there we flashback to the 1940s.

In short order, we’re introduced to Johann Schmidt, also known as the Red Skull, the leader of HYDRA, a group that supports the Nazis with their work into the supernatural and the paranormal.  Schmidt is in pursuit of a mysterious object in Norway (giving us our first little tie into Thor) that he believes will lead him to some sort of ultimate power.

The we meet young Steve Rogers.  Rogers is a 90-lb. weakling who has a good heart and wants to do his part for his country.  He’s repeatedly tried to enlist into the armed forces and repeatedly gets classified as 4F, making him unable to serve.  As Rogers is getting ready to see his best friend off to war, James “Bucky” Barnes, he’s discovered by Dr. Abraham Erskine.  Erskine sees great potential In Rogers for his Super Soldier project and is immediately drafted into service, much to the chagrin of the head of the project, Colonel Philips and one of his top agents, Peggy Carter.

Needless to say, the project is a success and from there… well, I’ll leave that to you to discover.

Captain America: The First Avenger is the fifth in the series of Marvel comic adaptations to be directly handled by Marvel itself, following on the heels of the first two Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk and Thor leading up to next year’s big Avengers movie.  It’s also, in my opinion, the best film yet in the series.

Joe Johnston is the director of this film and he’s certainly no stranger to working in the realm of the fantastic, having spent many years before as a lead concept artist with Lucasfilm and having previously directed such films as Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and last year’s The Wolfman. When I first heard that Johnston had been selected to direct this, I was thrilled by the prospect, primarily due to his work in bringing the late Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer to cinematic life.  Johnston doesn’t disappoint at all here.  He gives us a very satisfying full story about the good Captain as well as tying it into the other Marvel films, and it’s just loaded with nice “Easter Eggs” that fans will appreciate, that in no way will detract from anyone else’s enjoyment.

The look of the movie is absolutely first rate.  Everything from production design, to shot framing to visual effects is absolutely stunning.  For a movie that’s slightly over two hours long, it’s tightly edited and wonderfully punctuated with a terrific score from composer Alan Silvestri.  In fact, I hope this gets an Oscar nomination for visual effects primarily for the wonderful job the movie does in transforming actor Chris Evans into a 90-pound weakling.  Near as I can tell, this looks seamless and the only way you know it’s a visual effect is because you have a recognizable guy like Chris Evans in the role.  I’d hazard to guess that if this same technology was used with a total unknown, with the exception of the height differential, most would think that an unknown actually made a physical transformation himself for the role.

Chris Evans plays the part of Steve Rogers/Captain America and he’s just fantastic.  He’s certainly no stranger to comic book movies having played The Human Torch in The Fantastic Four movies, and Jensen and Lucas Lee in last year’s The Losers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World respectively.  I first got familiar with Evans when I saw him in Not Another Teen Movie back in 2001 and it’s been fun to watch him come along since then.  His Captain America is sincere and quietly confident to the point of what I’d expect that some might see as corny, but I love that, and think it’s just the thing that this character needs.  He wouldn’t have been my first choice to have played this part, which is no reflection on his skills, I just wouldn’t have thought of him to do it.  I’m sold though, Chris Evans is perfect here and you just want to see him do more.

He’s got a lot of great back-up, starting with actress Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter.  Carter’s first skeptical of what this weak guy can do, but as she gets to know Rogers further, she really opens up to the guy.  That chemistry that Atwell has with Evans is genuine and certainly convincing in the context of the film.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Colonel Phillips and really this is the type of part that Jones can do in his sleep, but it’s still terrific to see him do it.  Jones brings a big sense of humor to the film that’s never condescending.  Sebastion Stan plays “Bucky” Barnes, Rogers’ best friend, and though his scenes seem relatively brief, he’s right on target.  Stanley Tucci plays Dr. Abraham Erskine and brings just the right touch of both compassion and authority.

Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull and ever since first seeing him in The Matrix I’ve been thoroughly impressed by his skills and confidence in every part he’s played.  In V For Vendetta he confidently and convincingly played a part without ever revealing his true face.  While he does show his face in his opening scenes here, at one point his true look as The Red Skull is shown and from that point on, he plays that part in the full make-up and to me, from that point on, he’s Jack Kirby’s classic character brought to true cinematic life.  Weaving’s just terrific here and the promise is certainly there that he will return to the part.

I chose not to see this one in 3D and though I’m glad I did see it in 3D, I’ve since seen Christy Lemire’s and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review of the film (in 3D) on Ebert Presents At The Movies to which both gave it a “thumbs up” review.  I’ve of course heard others de-cry the 3D yet again, so really I guess it just where you stand on 3D yourself as to whether you choose that route to see the film.  There were certainly sequences that I saw in the film that I could imagine looked great in 3D, but would those sequences justify the full price?  I really can’t say.

But regardless of how you see it… do see it.  Captain America: The First Avenger is terrific fun and just a rousing good time at the movies.  Chris Evans carries the film with a commanding presence and charm and the film itself just looks awesome under Joe Johnston’s masterful direction.  As has been the case with all of the Marvel movies, stay through the end credits and you’ll be treated to a preview of next summer’s Avengers film.  Don’t miss this one…

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

24. July 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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